By Lenn Robbins
Drop the name Rick Pitino in any room full of basketball coaches, reporters and fans, and this is what you will hear:
Egomaniac. Philanthropist. Philanderer. Friend. Machiavellian. Loyal.
All should agree on this: Rick Pitino is one of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball. He might be the best but that’s a dustup that could last until the nets are cut down in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Pitino will be in that tournament again, taking his fifth different school to the Big Dance after leading Iona to a 60-51 win over Fairfield in the MAAC title game. Only two other coaches have accomplished that. Tubby Smith and Lon Kruger are great college coaches but they’ve worked at elite programs and neither tried their hand in the NBA where Pitino gave Knicks fans one of their most exciting seasons – the 1988-89 Bomb Squad.
Longtime college and NBA coach Billy Donovan, who played for Pitino at Providence College, said this of Pitino.
“He drove me to be the best,” Donovan once told me. “And then he drove me harder.”
Mark Jackson, who played for Pitino with the Knicks, had this to say of his NBA coach.
“When you talk about great coaching, Rick Pitino was the best coach that I ever played for,” Jackson said.
Pitino looked as he did when he coached Kentucky and Louisville to national championships. He wore a stylish navy suit. He had a tube of white notes and stats clutched in his right hand like a drum major’s baton. He had the slicked black hair.
With 47 seconds left and the game in hand Pitino was still working the refs. He had been called for a technical four minutes earlier because there’s no better guarantee for a coach to be seen on TV than getting teed up. He finally took his seat, rising with five seconds left to hug his assistant coaches and players.
Pitino, whose college record stands at 655-276 in 32 seasons, excludes another 105 wins that were stripped after he was fired from the Louisville job in the wake of an FBI investigation that found a pay for play scheme. Pitino would have even more wins had he not coached for six seasons in the NBA. Mike Krzyzewski, for comparison sake, has 1,132 wins in 44 seasons.
Kruger has taken Oklahoma, Kansas State, Florida, Illinois, and UNLV – all big-time programs to the Big Dance. Smith did likewise, taking Texas Tech, Minnesota, Kentucky, Georgia, and Tulsa.
Boston College, Providence, and now Iona, are three of the five schools that Pitino has taken. Iona threw him a college basketball coaching lifeline and the 68-year-old who claims he’s closer to 48, is relishing his current job.
“I’m just really pleased to be at Iona,” Pitino said. “When you grow up in New York, I grew up on 26th Street, on the East Side of Manhattan. I lived in Queens, I lived in Long Island, I lived in Westchester when I was the Knick coach. I’m New York strong all the way through, and it means a lot to be at Iona.”
It means more to Iona. Iona has ruled the MAAC, especially under former coach Tim Cluess, but the Gaels have never gotten the media attention they’ve received since hiring Pitino on March 14, 2020. Sources said Pitino already has raised more than $1 million for the athletic department.
After cutting down the nets in Boardwalk Hall, the Gaels headed to the Atlantic City International Airport for a charter flight to Indianapolis and the tournament. Pitino stole a line from another great NYC college coach – Lou Carnesecca – who said it mattered not where a team played. Either you pack a big bag or a small one.
“I told them that I was packing eight suits and was packed for a long time,” Pitino said. “I’m not sure anybody believed me, but now we have a lot of dirty laundry and we’re heading to Indianapolis.”
It’s where he should be in March.